Lights run low in the hot room, full of dancing teenagers at a house devoid of parental supervision. The partiers pass red cups from person to person, seemingly filled with whatever alcohol the kid with the fake I.D. could get. In a room close by, other teens smoke cigarettes that someone’s brother bought for them. Everyone laughs under the light of the moon, partying until dawn.
Such is a stereotypical scene people come to think of when picturing high school parties. Despite not being of legal age to drink, 11 percent of alcohol consumed is by minors, the Centers for Disease Control reported. The effects of underage drinking can be drastic on the consumer, said Dr. Constance Scharff, an internationally recognized speaker on alcoholism recovery.
“Probably the most important problem for early involvement in substance use [or] abuse is that the brain is not yet fully developed in young people,” Dr. Scharff said. “The brain does not reach maturity until 25. In teens and young adults, very important ‘pruning’ is going on. The brain is deciding which neural connections are important to keep and which are not. Substance abuse impairs this process, which can lead to lifelong problems that may not become apparent until well after the damage has been done.”
Problems that Dr. Scharff refers to include a shrinking of the hippocampus region in the brain, which is connected to memory and learning impairment, according to the National Institute of Health. It is for this reason that Dr. Scharff believes an age restriction is in place for drinking alcohol.
A person cannot lawfully consume alcohol under the age of 21, which 25 percent of people consider too restrictive, according to a poll conducted by Gallup News in 2014. This includes senior Alex Geyer, who believes the limit’s purpose is to ensure that most people are mature enough to handle being under the influence. He said many people can manage it well before the age of 21, however.
“I see nothing wrong with just having a few drinks with your parents or family on some kind of holiday or event or whatever,” Geyer said. “If you just want to go drink with your friends and have a good time and [you’re] being relatively responsible, like not driving, and doing all the good things that a legal-aged person would do when they go out on the town. As long as you’re being responsible, the only law you’re breaking is the drinking itself, then I see no wrong with that as long as you’re not hurting people.”[pullquote align=”right”]”As long as you’re being responsible, the only law you’re breaking is the drinking itself, then I see no wrong with that as long as you’re not hurting people.” – Alex Geyer, senior[/pullquote]
Drinking while out on the town often brings the question of how to get home, which more often than not involves drunk driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 10,497 people died because of drunk driving in 2016. This is lower than in the past, as 26,173 people died because of drunk driving in 1982; as a result, Mothers Against Drunk Driving claim the higher drinking age is responsible for the decrease in car accidents, according to an article published by Boston University, which was before the federal standardization of the drinking age in 1984.
Geyer cautions, however, that people will likely die of alcohol-related car accidents regardless of where the drinking age falls.
“You’re going to have problems with wherever the age [restriction] is,” Geyer said. “When [people turn 21], whoever it is, they’re going to go wild — some people will go wild — and it’s shown that drunk driving accidents increase dramatically from [age] 21 to 24 in the United States. In Britain, where [the legal age is] 18, they increase dramatically from 18 to 21. Wherever it is, there’s going to be that problem.”
European countries tend to have a different view on the restriction of legal substance use; the median legal drinking age there is 18, with many countries allowing 16-year-olds to consume light alcoholic drinks, according to an article on tripsavvy.com. French foreign exchange student and junior Marine Caron said the culture around alcohol in the United States is much different than in her home country France.
“If you [tell] your parents [that] you will drink alcohol, they will be worried, but I know if you’re going with your friends and you will be drinking alcohol and you don’t tell [your parents], they will be so mad at you because they prefer to know you are going somewhere and you will drink alcohol,” Caron said. “That’s at, like, 17. At 18 they don’t care because they aren’t responsible for you.”
Italian foreign exchange student and junior Giada Batticani attests to the same mentality in her country, finding the reaction to drinking alcohol odd in the United States.
“It’s not like here where it’s like ‘Oh, I’m 21’ but in Italy and France it’s not a big deal. It’s okay. You can drink alcohol,” Batticani said. “People … never think, ‘Oh, I have to drink alcohol. Let’s drink alcohol.’ Here you see that, but it’s different. [In Europe] sometimes you can, but it’s not like every weekend like it’s a big deal. Nobody gets too drunk — nobody does [binge drinking].”
18 percent of high school students reported they binge drank in the past 30 days according to a survey by the CDC.
In terms of first-world countries, the United States ranks high in terms of alcoholism rates, according to a report by the World Health Organization. In general, the United States’ rates are higher than developed European countries, which Geyer attributes to the stigma of drinking and alcoholism in the country.
“The culture of the United States has always stigmatized drinking more than other Western societies, in Europe especially,” Geyer said. “I think the stigma leads to alcoholics because of their problems, and they have to hide out because it would be looked down upon for them to get drunk by themselves, but that’s what they do because they’re alcoholics, and the stigma causes more problems because of that.”
In contrast, smoking is more accepted in society; around 42 percent of adults smoked 50 years ago, decreasing as a public understanding of how smoking affects the body grew, according to an article published by NBC News. In addition, many companies give “smoke breaks” despite not being required to by law, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.
While most people smoke because they’re addicted to the nicotine inside the cigarette, according to smokefree.gov, one junior says teenagers just starting to smoke, whether it be cannabis or cigarettes, do it for the fun of it.
“I think a lot of teens smoke to get away from the stress of school or their lives,” a junior, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “Personally, I [smoke marijuana] to have fun with friends most of the time, but it’s very helpful when you’re stressed out.”[heading size=”16″]30 states and the District of Columbia have legalized some form of marijuana[/heading]
In Columbia, a 2014 ordinance raised the cigarette purchasing age to 21, but 18-year-olds are still able to smoke, as reported by KOMU. This is likely because of the plentiful effects smoking can have on the body, which range from blood circulation to fertility issues, according to the National Health Service in the United Kingdom. The junior said these effects are detrimental to body and mind, regardless of why one smokes.
“Personally, I realized that I was becoming more lazy and unmotivated to do anything,” the junior said. “Smoking isn’t necessarily good for your brain when it’s still developing, either.”
Regardless of the unhealthy effects on the body, Caron and Battacani alike said they think the amount of people who smoke in Europe far exceeds the amount in the United States, and they both come into contact with smoking regularly in their home countries.
“In France, everyone smokes,” Caron said. “We have a break every two hours in France for ten minutes and all the kids go outside of the school and to the parking lot to smoke cigarettes. I don’t smoke but almost all of my friends smoke. It’s crazy.”
Battacani also points out that, when comparing the attitude around alcohol and cigarettes from Europe to the United States, the approach flips considerably.
“One good thing here is that cigarettes aren’t a big thing,” Battacani said. “Like, this is the difference. Alcohol is not that big in Europe but here I see like ‘Oh, I have to drink. I have to buy alcohol,’ and in Italy it’s not like that, but with cigarettes you can start smoking when you’re 18, but they don’t check your I.D.”
This highlights a major cultural difference regarding age restrictions globally. A person can do essentially everything by age 18 in most European countries, Caron said. She thinks the gradual increase in responsibility in the United States is a good system to implement, however.
“I think it’s good here just to have some steps,” Caron said. “Like, at 16 you can drive, so you have more ability. After 18 you can vote and 21 you can drink. I think it’s good to have steps, but it’s [a] very large [gap in between in the United States]. It’s 18 for everything in Europe.”
Geyer agrees with Caron, saying the gap’s wideness can catch Americans off-guard, which can cause more dangerous behavior to occur because of the restrictions.
“I think when you set the age in the middle of college it creates this weird societal effect that you’re not really an adult yet until you’re 21, although you’re doing all these adult things,” Geyer said. “You’re going to college; you’re making decisions for yourself. You’re paying for things; you might even have an apartment and living on your own. It’s a dangerous effect because why would you listen to that when you’re doing all these things that a 21-year-old does, and it makes the law not matter anyway?”